Anya Taylor-Joy Isn't Resting on Her Laurels
Anya Taylor-Joy looks as if she were beamed here from another time. Much has been made of this fact, a function of those arresting eyes, the kind that must drive mascara wands into an identity crisis. Or, in the words of one YouTube commenter: "Anya's face is like a cinematographer's cheat code." But for our purposes? The Golden Globe–winning, Emmy-nominated actress kinda was beamed here. Not only is she in California while I'm in New York, but the era of the Celebrity Zoom Interview (Tell me about that painting! Ooh, and what are those?) has not quite drawn to a close. The indefatigable 25-year-old has done six years of back-to-back projects, notably Netflix's juggernaut hit The Queen's Gambit and Autumn de Wilde's adaptation of Emma. And now she is headed to Iceland to film additional scenes for Robert Eggers's upcoming The Northman. So, cinematic as it might sound for us to have found each other in an airport, logic has dictated that I stay in my kitchen and she stays at a friend's house in Los Angeles, where…where…OK, what are those?
"These?" she says, pointing at a shelf behind her so that a flash of white-blond hair swings over her shoulder. "These are space helmets. My friend is very fun. We have many costumes in this house. I'm not going to lie, I semi-want to put one on for you."
I warn her that if she does this, I might have to make a "many hats" analogy, but she is undeterred. She grins like a kid, selecting one that makes her look like a steampunk British bobby. Then comes a muffled bang in the distance.
"They're demolishing something in the backyard," she says. "It's pandemonium. I'm hiding away as much as I can."
She's not doing a very good job hiding. Since her breakthrough performance in 2015's The Witch, in which she played a girl seduced by the devil, Taylor-Joy has become one of the most lauded and sought-after young actresses in Hollywood, and in an indelible way that cuts through trend. In short, every role is a banger. For the first time in her life, she knows "exactly what I'll be doing the next two and a half years." A sampling: She will star alongside Margot Robbie and Christian Bale in David O. Russell's new film, play Furiosa in the prequel to Mad Max, and, this month, co-star with Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie in Edgar Wright's stylish psychological thriller Last Night in Soho. Taylor-Joy plays Sandy, an aspiring singer in 1960s London whose dreams are dashed when she's sucked into the seedy underworld of the city. Taylor-Joy is so perfectly cast as a Brigitte Bardot type with her mod dresses, there's a dissonance to knowing she has beamed herself in yet again, this time from a different century.
"The strangest thing about playing Sandy was I had finished Emma the day before," says Taylor-Joy. "To go from being in a corset, being very prim and proper, to suddenly being in a room where everyone's touching each other and I'm making out with this dude…I had to exorcise Emma very, very quickly."
Taylor-Joy is uniquely suited to such dramatic shifts. She's led a glamorously itinerant life: Born in Miami, she lived in Buenos Aires until she was 6, when the family relocated to London. At the time, she was "comically mad at my parents for taking me away from the horses" and so she refused to learn English. Nowadays her friends keep Anya Corners in their homes, piled with her clothes. She "used to stress out over the fact that I didn't have a home. I had no base. I had no place to land."
The youngest of six with a wide age gap — her eldest sister is in her 50s — Taylor-Joy "had so much energy, I would drive my siblings crazy. They would pick me up, turn me upside down, and just say, 'Where is the off button? How do we power her down?' "
"I had to get very good at entertaining myself," she continues. "I would create all of these different worlds and go off into the woods. I remember my sister once coming into my bedroom as I was putting up posters and playing six different characters at the same time, doing all the voices. I turned around and she said, 'You are so strange,' and I was like, 'But you guys aren't going to do it. I have to be all of the characters. Otherwise, no one's going to play with me.'"
This story is delivered without a lick of self-pity or cliché — They teased me, but now I'm a model! — even if, OK, sure, Taylor-Joy was a model. She truly forgets that her life could be of interest to anyone because "you don't naturally find your own life interesting." Actually, most people do. But it's this grace and laser-focused work ethic that are buoying her amid newfound fame.
"I don't think that I could be mentally stable and be walking around and thinking, yes, this all makes sense," she says. "I also have great friends who tease me mercilessly if I even hint at being overworked or stressed. They're like, 'Oh yeah, honey, it's so sad that you have to go get on a plane and go do whatever.' It's all in good fun, but they're right, I'm very lucky. I'm very privileged. It's so much, but it's still so bizarre."
Still? Even after The Queen's Gambit?
"That show was made by some of my favorite people in the world, and it's about chess. That gives me such deep joy. I've been approached by 87-year-old couples who tell me they've watched it three times, and they've watched it with their grandchildren. It's so beautiful that it's touched so many people. But I still don't really think I get it. Every time I see my face on a billboard, I have a sharp intake of breath."
This goes for her actual work as well, not just the accompanying spotlight. "Any time you see yourself onscreen, you're going to be like, 'Ugh, that's a nightmare,' " she laughs. "What are you doing?"
Case in point: The morning after she hosted the season finale of Saturday Night Live in May, she ran into a friend on the street "who looks at me and goes, 'You have no idea what happened last night, do you?' I tend to forget my accomplishments as soon as I've done them. On the one hand, that's not great for your self-esteem. You need to remind yourself you've done things you can be proud of. But on the other hand, I'm consistently like, 'What's next? What am I doing in this moment in time? How do I do this to the best of my ability?' I never feel like I'm resting on my laurels, because I don't realize I have them yet."
There's a humor and sincerity to Taylor-Joy that comes straight through the screen (mine, everyone else's). If she uses a word she doesn't quite mean or trails off, she scans herself for cause ("I didn't sleep at all last night") and reels herself back into the moment. When she takes off her sweater and reveals a nude tank underneath, I flinch. She catches it: "You're like, girl, keep your shirt on, Jesus."
This level of engagement comes easily, but of late, it's been tested. "I really struggle with wanting to give everybody everything all of the time," she says. "One of the things that I've learned recently is you have to do what makes you feel good, not what other people tell you should make you feel good. If you spend what little time you have off only doing things out of obligation, your soul suffers from it."
Her other internal struggle has a slightly more established history: "I grew up feeling like people didn't like or trust me because they couldn't put me in a box. I was always the Argentine girl in England. I was the English girl in America. I was the weird blend of both in Argentina, so I never really fully belonged." She applies this thinking to her body of work as well.
"To go from being somebody like Emma to Sandy to Beth [The Queen's Gambit], I thrive off that," says Taylor-Joy. "It is so much fun to be able to pick apart a different person and go, 'Oh, how am I going to make myself either bigger or smaller to fit into their shoes?' You end up working out some of your own shit that you didn't even realize that you needed to work out because you're clearly connected to that person for some reason. It's very esoteric and wanky, I apologize. But yeah, I don't appreciate boxes. I don't think that is helpful to anybody or a very intelligent way of looking at human beings."
Taylor-Joy had a hard time letting go of her '60s siren, just as she did with all her characters. After The Witch wrapped, she found herself depressed but couldn't understand why. She hadn't left the set yet. But then "it was like, 'Oh, it's her.' I missed her."
"I think I got saved with Beth because of the amount of time that I had with her. Still, I was in such deep grief that when I took off the wig for the last time, I just held it and sobbed. It's a very bizarre thing, but you do love [the characters]. Even if they're terrible people, you love them."
Last Night in Soho comes out around Halloween, which, to no one's surprise, is one of Taylor-Joy's preferred holidays; she has celebrated it to some extent in Argentina, to a medium extent in England, and to a pageantry extent in America. Her all-time favorite costume, Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction, was worn about four years ago. Taylor-Joy in a wig playing Uma Thurman in a wig feels like a corner of the universe folding in on itself. Though this time, there was no crying after wig removal.
"I had been working so solidly and I had to be up at 4 a.m.," Taylor-Joy recalls of that particular night. "And then I just had a bit of a conniption where I called up my agent and I was like, 'I am 20 years old. I should be allowed to go to a Halloween party.' My agent was like, 'We're not telling you not to go. You should go. You haven't been outside in a really long time.' "
Even on a superficial level, she's had to learn how to take care of herself. Or, well, at least how to keep wearing wigs on a voluntary basis.
"I did this one project where they bleached my hair from root to tip every Sunday for three and a half months. Then I dyed it brunette, and the stylist said, 'Oh, that's so cute. You have an undercut.' She lifted up my hair and the whole bottom was completely fried off. I was like, 'Ah, OK, bleach is bad, good to know.' I grew up as such a tomboy that I had no concept of hair dye, of how to take care of my skin or anything. Now I know some things."
Naturally, these lessons in self-preservation and awareness extend beyond beauty. How Taylor-Joy conducts herself in the world has required a bit of shifting as well. "I used to hysterically sob on planes as my form of therapy of leaving jobs behind," she says. "I would put on a dramatic movie and be like, 'OK, tonight we cry!' But I can't sob on planes anymore without people being concerned for my well-being. Someone will be like, 'Are you OK?'"
There's another distant thud in the yard. She shifts her eyes toward the source for a moment and laughs.
"I'm like, 'No, this is good. It's good crying. It's all good tears, I swear!' "
Photography by Sebastian Faena/IMG Lens. Styling by Law Roach/The Only Agency. Hair by Gregory Russell/The Wall Group. Makeup by Georgie Eisdell/The Wall Group. Manicure by Kim Troung/Startouch Agency. Set design by Gille Mills/The 11th House Agency. Production by Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the October 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 17th.